By Michael Lanza
Finding a sleeping bag that’s right for you may be the most confusing gear-buying task. Getting the right one is critical to sleeping comfortably in the backcountry, and your bag could save your life in an emergency. But with the myriad choices out there, how do you tell them apart, beyond temperature rating and price? I’ve slept in many, many bags as a gear tester for well over two decades for Backpacker magazine and this blog, in all seasons, in temperatures from very mild to -30° F. (Mild is more pleasant.) In this article, I’ll share what I’ve learned about picking out a sleeping bag that will be ideal for your body and your adventures.
General Tips For Buying a Sleeping Bag
• Know your own body. Do you get cold easily or are you a furnace? Women tend to get cold more easily, and this is a simple function of physics: Women often have a higher ratio of body surface area to mass compared to men, so their bodies lose heat more readily. Those women are more comfortable in a bag made for women, which is shaped differently than a men’s bag and typically has extra insulation in areas like the feet.
• If you get cold easily, get a bag rated 20 to 25 degrees colder than the coldest temperatures you plan to sleep outside in.
• People who don’t get cold easily will be more comfortable in a bag rated to within 10 to 15 degrees of the coldest temperatures you plan to sleep outside in—and possibly even a bag rated right around the coldest temp you’ll encounter, provided you have extra clothing to put on, just in case. (I’ve spent many nights around freezing perfectly warm enough in a bag rated 32° F.) Being too hot is no more comfortable than being too cold, and having a bag much warmer than needed means you’re carrying superfluous weight and bulk. (See my tips on lightening your pack weight.https://thebigoutside.com/the-simple-equation-of-ultralight-backpacking-less-weight-more-fun/)
Got an all-time favorite campsite? See “Tent Flap With a View: 25 Favorite Backcountry Campsites.”
Down Vs. Synthetic Bags
Down has traditionally been lighter, more packable, and warmer than many synthetic insulations; but once wet, synthetics still kept you fairly warm, while down feathers become all but useless at retaining heat. Today, the lines between down and synthetic have been blurred somewhat with the development of high-quality, lightweight and compact synthetic insulations like PrimaLoft, and water-resistant down, which retains its ability to trap heat even when wet.
Down is more packable and very durable, so it still holds an advantage as the insulation of choice if you don’t expect to get that bag wet; and water-resistant down enhances your bag’s performance in common circumstances where it may get damp, such as when condensation builds up inside a tent. Still, even water-resistant down, once saturated, loses much of its ability to keep you warm, and drying out any bag is extremely difficult, if not impossible, in prolonged, wet weather. Synthetic insulation remains the best choice for extended trips in wet environments.
Get the right tent for you. See my “Gear Review: The 5 Best Backpacking Tents”
and my “5 Tips For Buying a Backpacking Tent.”
Tell me what you think.
I spent a lot of time writing this story, so if you enjoyed it, please consider giving it a share using one of the buttons at right, and leave a comment or question at the bottom of this story. I’d really appreciate it.
See also my related stories: